By Tammy Kolda
Interview season is approaching, so this is a great time to talk about one of my biggest pet peeves with hiring candidates.
In the U.S., the typical interview for a PhD-level position lasts a full day or more, including a one-hour seminar and one-on-one meetings with researchers and/or faculty as well as managers/administrators. The one-on-one meetings are expected to be two-way conversations; unfortunately, candidates don’t always realize this. The following conversation snippet is typical…
Me: We’ve been delighted to host you for an interview today. We’ve heard about your work during your seminar and I’ve just asked you all my questions. What questions do you have for me?
Candidate: [A few moments of silence.] Well, I’ve already talked to a bunch of people and I just can’t think of anything else to ask.
Sigh. This is such a disappointing response, and all the more so because it’s such an easy question. The frequency that it occurs continues to astound me.
One thing that may be hard to fathom as a job candidate is that you’re being interviewed to work with people, not for people. You will no longer be in a subservient role but rather a peer and colleague. So, the interview conversation is important because it gives a sense of how you’ll “fit in” to the department and how interested you are in the work itself. An interview candidate without questions comes across as someone who’s not interested in the job, won’t engage in the department, and is generally unprepared. In contrast, good conversations can lead to long-lasting relationships, regardless of the outcome of the interview itself.
Preparation helps. If you actually want the job, it’s a good idea to do some homework in advance. Research the institution, the department, and the people on your interview schedule in advance of the interview itself. Be proactive in requesting your interview schedule. Take notes on what you learn from your investigations and don’t be afraid to pull those notes out during the interview. My colleagues and I are always really impressed by people who have taken even just 5 minutes to check our web pages.
Not all of these questions are appropriate for all scenarios (especially group interviews), but these may give you an idea of the types of questions that can keep the conversation going.
Of course, you also can and should ask questions about benefits, salary structure, timing for the decision, research and travel funding, the local housing market, the school situation, etc. But these questions are quickly used up after one or two meetings.
Tamara G. Kolda serves on the SIAM Board of Trustees and is a Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, CA.